DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
American roots music has been pretty well scrutinized in recent years, but one genre has been neglected, gospel. Black gospel has been better served than white gospel, but anyone who wants to learn more about the roots of soul music has a job ahead of them.
Rock historian Ed Ward says that job has been made easier by two sets of CDs curated by Mike McGonigal: "Fire in My Bones" and "This May Be My Last Time Singing." Here's Ed's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET HIM RIDE")
MISSISSIPPI NIGHTINGALES: (Singing) Don't let the devil ride. Oh-oh-oh, don't you let the devil ride. 'Cause if you let him ride, he'll want to try to drive. Don't let him ride.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Some years back, I was driving across the South with a German friend, leaving early Sunday morning from Athens, Georgia, and heading to Louisiana. I turned on the radio and found a black church service in progress, and a woman with a remarkable voice singing. Who's that? My friend asked. I told him I had no idea. But with a voice like that, she must be famous, he said. Some miles down the road, when the station had faded out, he still didn't believe me. Of course, that's no reason to believe she didn't make a record.
Mike McGonigal, whose literary magazine Yeti mixes indie rock and literature, has been collecting gospel 45s on vanity and tiny independent labels for years, and in his spare time he's put out two triple-disc sets of amazing stuff from his collection. Some of it, like the Mississippi Nightingales' "Don't Let Him Ride," which we just heard, is fairly conventional, but some of it isn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER GET READY")
ELDER ROMA WILSON AND FAMILY: (Singing) Well, you just well to get ready you got to die. Just better get ready, you got to die. Well, it maybe today or tomorrow well, you can't tell a minute or hour.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARMONICA)
ELDER ROMA WILSON AND FAMILY: (Singing) Well, you just as...
WARD: Elder Roma Wilson and Family were a man and his three sons, all four of them playing harmonicas, recorded in 1948 in a Detroit record store. They weren't even informed that their record had been released until McGonigal contacted them.
Most of these recordings are fairly obscure, but not all of them. Elder Beck's "Rock and Roll Sermon" is too long to play here, but it's long been snickered over as a prime example of a preacher preaching against something that his band knows only too well. For a denunciation of rock 'n' roll, it rocks; in fact, rocking is something that's all over these collections. Witness Little Ax and the Golden Echoes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO SOON")
LITTLE AX AND THE GOLDEN ECHOES: (Singing) Whoa. So soon. So soon. And I'll be at home. And I'll be at home. So soon. So soon. I'm coming home. I'll be at home. Because I'll be... A working. I'll do the talking. With my savior. Amen, yeah. So soon. So soon. Oh, lord. So soon. I'm coming home. So soon. I'll be at home. So soon. So soon. I'm coming on home. I'll be at home. So soon.
WARD: McGonigal has unearthed stories on most of these records, and he reports that Little Ax, who put in time with a lot of professional gospel groups, was named Wilmer Broadnax - although the word on the gospel circuit was that Wilmer was born Wilma and spent her entire life passing as a man.
These selections I've played so far were from the "Fire in My Bones" collection, which includes not only independent recordings, but a fair helping of ethnomusicological recordings. The fact that the follow-up collection, "This May Be My Last Time Singing," is more narrowly focused on gospel 45s from 1957 to 1982, makes it even more exciting.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MAY BE MY LAST TIME SINGING)
MAMIE SAMPLE: (Singing) May be my last time, may be my last time, may be my last time, may be my last time, I don't know. May be my last time singing, oh, yeah. May be my last time, I don't know. May be my last time praying, oh, yeah. May be my last time but I don't know. Oh, it may be my last time...
WARD: It's exciting, but that doesn't mean that it's any more polished. Missionary Mamie Sample recorded this in New Orleans in 1972, an old Staples Singers song that's clearly fallen into the folk tradition - not to mention The Rolling Stones' repertoire. In fact, pop music, the blues and the church get pretty intertwined in some of these numbers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU EVER NEED A FRIEND")
MASONIC TRAVELERS: (Singing) Oh, if you ever need a mighty good friend, I know you... Sure do need him. Oh, if you ever need a mighty good friend I know you... Sure do need him. Oh. Whenever you need a mighty good friend, he sure do. Oh. If you ever need a mighty good friend, I know you sure do need him now. You need him every day. Every day. Every hour. Every hour. Everywhere you go. You know. Whoa, the lord...
WARD: The Masonic Travelers of Memphis, Tenn., recorded this for the J&W label, for which the song's writer, Willie Morganfield, was a producer. If his name seems familiar, it should be, he's one of Muddy Waters' sons. I have to admit that I hope these two collections do very well - not just because McGonigal's a nice guy and he's done a fantastic job here, but because it might indicate that there's some interest in gospel.
And these records are fine in their own quirky way, but the vast majority of black gospel remains not only out of print, but inaccessible. Every big postwar independent label that recorded black music – Chess, Duke, Scepter and Jewel, to name just a few – had a gospel label on which the major, auditorium-filling acts recorded. The situation in gospel right now is like having all the 13th Floor Elevators' records in print while nobody can get to The Beatles' recordings.
With the revival of interest in soul, it might be nice to let people hear where it - and most of its singers - came from. Until then, I commend these sets to you, with their odd mixture of sermons, songs and strangeness.
DAVIES: Ed Ward is Fresh Air's rock historian. He lives in France. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the "Deep Blue Sea" starring Rachel Weisz. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.